There seems to be a renewed interest in the Singing Nun or Soeur Sourire of 1960s fame with the release of the new movie this April, Soeur Sourire starring the actress Cecile de France. Like the movie by MGM in 1966, The Singing Nun, the Belgian film is a fictionalized account of the life of Jeannine Deckers who joined the Dominican order at Fichermont convent at Waterloo, Belgium in 1959 and became Sr. Luc Gabriel.
Writing a biography on Deckers was a long and difficult process that I hope will be much easier for biographers in the future, that is, perhaps now her private journals and photograph albums will be archived by the Belgian government and made available for research. If not, Loyola University has expressed an interest in housing them for an exhibit on influential women. Dr. Susan Ross, Director of The Gannon Center for Women & Leadership is quite interested in honoring Jeannine and will certainly do an excellent job of preserving them.
There would have been many biographies of Deckers but for the unfortunate death of her manager and executor, Jean Berlier, who had kept her private papers and journals at his office where writers such as Florence Delaporte could access them. Prior to Berlier’s death a businessman named Luc Maddelein “borrowed” the documents that included her vast number of photo albums for a supposed book. Berlier died while Maddelein still was in possession of the documents. Since that time, Maddelein has controlled who could view them and use them for research. He could do this because, sadly, no one in Belgium cared enough to do anything about it. He claims to have nothing but honoring Jeannine as a goal, but his actions have indicated otherwise. I and an associate of mine, Mary Donnelly, of Loyola University wrote to the King and Queen of Belgium to ask that they take possession of Deckers documents for archiving, but we never received a response.
When first contacted by Maddelein he wanted to co-author a book with me in English with himself as the lead writer. Since he does not write English well, I was not really interested as it meant that I would have to translate his writing from Flemish to English-a good deal of work on my part. He also wanted to write a fictionalized novel, which I had no interest in doing. Before I could even view a page of Jeannine’s journals he wanted me to sign a business contract.
Luc Maddelein claims to be the pre-eminent expert on a woman he never knew-that is easy to do when you steal, then hoard her personal archives for yourself. He will allow access if you completely agree with his assessment of Deckers and you will collaborate with him. He is no professional and tells only the story he wishes to tell.
About this time I began to have serious doubts about his legal rights to documents belonging to a nonrelative that he essentially stole in the first place. To make a long, horrid story short, Maddelein refused me any access to her documents, including the journals I was particularly interested in. Further evidence that he has no right to own the Deckers papers is in the fact that he hid them at an associates apartment building for six weeks. This same associate recently tried selling a postcard of Jeannine’s for $500 on eBay.
Maddelein has written a picture book with Leen van de Berg and the present film on Deckers, Soeur Sourire, was suggested to the Belgian director Stijn Coninx by Maddelein and his co-author. The actress,Cecile de France also worked for three years to ensure the film was produced. The film is in French and currently available in limited regions. From what I have seen so far, it is closer to reality than the MGM film of 1966 and covers the entire life span of Deckers.
Yet, it is another fictionalized account of her life and is based on the assumption that Deckers and her companion of 25 years, Annie Pecher, were lovers. The beauty of writing fiction is that one does not have to be burdoned by the facts. In Music from the Soul: The Singing Nun Story we tried to present a clear picture without too much speculation. The only two people who know the reality of their relationship are dead. I certainly do not argue that the two women loved each other and were very devoted, but they cannot speak for themselves and it is not up to any of us to “out” either one of them. As far as Jeannine was concerned, she never really stopped being a nun even after leaving Fichermont. It should be remembered that Jeannine and Annie took vows of celibacy not required by the laity, so in my view it is disrespectful to assume that they broke those vows.
In the end, I wrote a biography on Jeannine Deckers with Florence Delaporte and in the process learned to translate French well enough that I do it for a living, so in that respect Maddelein did some good in refusing me access to the journals. My concern with yet another fictionalized movie is that people will take it heart as they did the Debbie Reynolds film. Deckers had real problems that need to be addressed, not the least of which was the total lack of support for women leaving religious orders. When she tried to get help for psychological problems it lead to a dependency on prescription drugs and her intense struggle with her sexuality is one in which many can identify.
There should be many more books on the life of Soeur Sourire, in which different writers can discover new angles in viewing the tragic life of Jeannine Deckers. And there are many unanswered questions. No one person should control access to the documents of a celebrity, especially someone with no right to possess them. I do not believe that Deckers would approve of this situation since she was taken advantage of her entire life and duped by those claiming to represent her best interests. It seems that she has not escaped this phenomon even in death.
Hopefully, since Americans essentially created the phenomenal success of Soeur Sourire, there will be a movie based on her life made here for her many English speaking fans.